How to Deal with Relapse

Progress is made, but progress is also lost. It can be hard to remain committed to the training job and push through without getting discouraged. Here is what you need to know about training through relapse so that both you and your horse come out the other side encouraged and with the trained response you were trying to achieve.

Why does Relapse Occur?

Relapse is a normal part of learning, but it is exacerbated by the trainer attempting to shape a behaviour too rapidly, progressing faster than the learner is able to. Due to the nature of shaping, earlier shaped criteria are going to deteriorate when a new criterion is added. This is normal, and this mini relapse can be trained through without making adjustments to the training program. However, a total relapse, where it seems as though all progress is lost, may need to be handled with care to avoid having a frustrated horse and trainer.

When we know why a problem is caused (in this case progressing too quickly), we can begin to address it head-on with the following three steps.

Step 1: What did I do wrong?

An unpleasant question to ask, this is a necessary one. The horse is a blameless participant in the training process. They are not there by choice, they did not ask to learn anything. It is you who brought them in from their field or paddock and began to teach them. Their cognition and understanding actually makes it impossible for them to be an active participant in their own training, which can be a foreign concept to us. Usually when a child is not doing well in school, it is because they are not applying themselves, and we tend to shift our human thoughts and attitudes onto the horse, seemingly in order to understand or relate to it better. However, Learning Theory precludes this idea, and it is the trainer who went wrong when the horse misses a lesson, and the trainer who was right when the horse gets it.

Poor timing is a very common reason that a lesson is lost. The other one, which I am more concerned with here, is progressing too quickly for the subject to be able to catch the lesson, which could actually be seen as a product of poor timing. Analyze the situation, think about the last time the horse did the exercise well, and think about what happened on that day and between then and when the relapse occurred.

Case Study

I was training an older horse to stand still to be brushed and saddled, which I also hoped would improve his tying response. He was learning really well, and was going to be used in a lesson. The student had only ridden once at this barn, so I brought the horse in for her, tied him up, and commanded him to stand. He did so very well as I brushed and tacked him, and I left him alone in the barn for a long time while I helped lesson students. Each time I returned, he had not moved. I praised him, rewarded him, renewed my command, and continued my work. He did his lesson and went out.

The next time I brought him in, three days later, with no work in between, he found it impossible to stand still. I examined the previous situation and realized that, although he stood very well the whole time, I had overdone it with him and had him stand for too long.

Step 2: Learn from the Mistake

If the cause of relapse is progressing too quickly, you need to make note of that mentally (or in a diary or training log, if you keep one) so that you do not repeat the mistake. It is not a career-ending one, or one that will ruin the trainability of a horse. Horses are very forgiving in terms of training. However, it is a setback in the time frame you have to train the horse, and it will add to the confusion of the horse and may impede retraining of the same manoeuvre when you return to it. These situations may all be overcome; however, they may stretch your creativity.

The horse may be deadened to your command or cue after an episode such as the one described above, necessitating the institution of a different cue or aid. For example, if you overdid training a young horse to move forward one step from your legs by asking for twenty steps the next day, you may have to retrain the response using two light whip-taps instead of leg aids and shape the legs back in.

Case Study

Before tying the horse in the previous case study and having him stand for about on hour (with a few movements in between), the longest I had asked him to stand for was about 10 minutes. This was a clear overreach of his ability, having only begun teaching him this cue four sessions before.

How could I have overcome this problem? He was scheduled to be in a lesson; there was nothing I could do about that (although the best solution may have been to not return him to lessons so quickly). Instead, the best option given the circumstances would have been to simply not give him the stand cue. After having him stand for brushing and saddling, as I had been doing, it would have been acceptable to leave him there while I swept or did some other activity in the vicinity. Then, however, I could have gone up, rewarded him, asked him to move one step, and left without repeating the command. He would then have been free to move if he felt the need, and probably would not have been overloaded.

Step 3: Fix the Mistake

Once a relapse due to stretching the horse too far has occurred, there is no way to fix it besides going back to the very beginning. As noted previously, it may also be necessary to use a different cue or motivation. The Case Study shows how I accomplished this.

Case Study

This time, when starting at the beginning, I began using clicker training. It was very informal. I did not use a clicker, only a distinct noise I made with my tongue, and I did not actively try to teach him what the click meant (a treat) before beginning training. I dove right in, knowing he would catch on very quickly, being a food-oriented horse. After two sessions of using the click and treat for standing still for 15 seconds, I began also incorporating the negative reinforcement I had used originally to train the behaviour of standing, placing him back when he moved. By the next session, I did not use the click and treat, but only used negative reinforcement and a positive reward such as scratching for a correct response.

In this instance, changing the cue was not necessary, but changing the motivation was. ‘Stand’ no longer meant anything to the horse, and negative reinforcement was no longer motivating him to stand. Food, however, did, and although he did begin following in an attempt to receive a treat, that indicated that he was motivated to try something, and his understanding of the stand cue returned quickly.

Mistakes are not the end of the world, but the beginning of better knowledge. I will not be making such an obvious mistake again anytime soon. Perhaps I have saved you some time by making the mistake for you — but if I have not, at least you know what to do about it to get yourself back on track. Above all, do not take a horse’s poor response personally. Horses cannot intentionally slight a person or their training abilities.

The Horsegentler


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